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Jets DL Jermaine Johnson: 'I'm Fighting for My Life' as He Learns the Pro Game

Green & White Coaches Love 1st-Rounder's Speed off the Edge, His 'Consistent Strain' and His Upside


For superficial fans who were checking out the stat lines of the Jets' first-round rookies after the preseason opener at Philadelphia, they might have been a little underwhelmed to see edge rusher Jermaine Johnson's one assisted tackle and nothing else.

But not surprisingly, there's more beneath the surface for the 23-year-old who attended three colleges in four seasons and showed plenty in his one season at Florida State to be selected 26th overall in the April NFL Draft.

For one thing, Johnson is not in a frenzy to get where he wants to go.

"It took a real long journey to get here," he said following Saturday's second joint practice with the Falcons at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center, adding of his progress, "I think it's gone well. One percent every day is what I focus on, getting better at one thing every practice. It's a slow grind, but as far as your upward progression, good things are going to happen."

Then there are the plays that have appeared on video for the Jets' new No. 52. The third-down scramble by Philly's Jalen Hurts that was punctuated by the more noteworthy roughing call on LB Quincy Williams, without the penalty, would have produced a fourth-and-5 situation for the Eagles at the Jets 35. Williams was credited with a zero-yard sack but also debited with the penalty on the play, but the scoring just as easily could have awarded Johnson his first pro sack for having flushed Hurts out of the pocket and to the sideline in the first place.

"It's part of the reason why we look for guys like Jermaine with all of that speed," head coach Robert Saleh said. "He's got the speed to close and eat grass where the quarterback knows he's not going to be able to pull up and throw the ball. ... He's got all the athleticism in the world. He's already got a good repertoire of moves as a pass rusher. He's been doing really good in the run game."

Not to overlook special teams, an element of the team that Johnson probably hasn't played much of since Independence CC in Kansas or maybe early in his Minnesota high school career. Johnson, lined up on the second level of the Jets' kickoff return team, dropped back to his 25, then not violently but effectively turned Eagles veteran JJ Arcega-Whiteside outside while Braxton Berrios cut crisply to the inside. Instead of Berrios possibly being cut down at his 20, he sped to his 33 for a 31-yard return.

"That's what's really good about this entire draft class. They've come in and bought into anything we've asked them to do," teams coordinator Brant Boyer said. "Jermaine specifically, he's getting better every day. He's working his butt off and he'll do anything I ask him and that's just a testament to how he works. How he's blocking out there is from him paying attention in meetings, and his willingness to do it is good to see.

"However I can help the team win, that's honestly how I look at it," Johnson said. "I practice like I'm a free agent anyway, so I don't really care. I'm fighting for my life. That's how I am and what I believe in, and how I practice lines up exactly with what Coach Saleh is preaching."

DC Jeff Ulbrich knows how it can be for players from big college programs — and Johnson played three seasons at Georgia and FSU — who come to the pros loaded with talent but maybe not used to the dirty work.

"I'm not saying complacent," Ulbrich said, but "there was another place Jermaine had to go as far as strain, effort, practice habits, details, all those things. Through the spring, we saw incremental gains as he went. He's starting to get it. He's starting to understand what it takes to be successful in this league and that's not just defense, that's special teams, too, and all that he's doing. Is it hard to go every play? Yeah, it is, but it simplifies your world. He's starting to find that consistent strain. A lot of things are promising about what he's done at practice and in the game."

So as he fights for his life while focusing on his power and counter moves against the Falcons and their new veteran QB, Marcus Mariota, in the first half of Monday night's second preseason game, keep in mind that Jermaine Johnson is a pro work-in-progress.

"He's going to be a definite help in all facets of football," Saleh said. "He's only going to get better as the year continues."

See the Green & White on the practice field with the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday at 1 Jets Drive.

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